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Barnstable County officials support EPA findings against proposed machine gun range

Eve Zuckoff
Massachusetts soldiers fire a .50 caliber machine gun at a Vermont training range. The proposal by the Massachusetts Army National Guard would create a similar training range on Joint Base Cape Cod.

Members of the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment expressed support this week for a draft report from federal officials that said a proposed machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod could create a “significant public health hazard.”

Bethany Traverse, the county’s health communications coordinator, said she fears the range could further impair water that was contaminated by past military activity.

“We're talking about [the proposed range] adding 1.3 million bullets per year to soil that's already been contaminated,” she said at a Wednesday meeting of the Barnstable County Commissioners. “So obviously there's a concern about mass loading and compounding on an existing problem.”

Sean O’Brien, the department’s director, agreed.

“You're looking at putting something on top of bad,” O’Brien said. “When you look and you think of our past and what had to be done in order to clean and work up on that site, it doesn't seem right to put something back — into something over an aquifer that's supplying the whole Upper Cape with water.”

The meeting marked the first discussion of the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft findings by a local governing body.

The commission plans to vote on a statement formally supporting the EPA's findings at its next meeting. That will be on May 24, the same day the EPA will hold a hearing for members of the public who want to comment on the draft report.

During the commission meeting, the health and environment officials provided commissioners with an in-depth overview of the EPA report. They emphasized that the proposed range on Joint Base Cape Cod sits atop the Sagamore Lens, which provides approximately 3 million gallons of drinking water per day to community public water supply systems in Sandwich, Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, Yarmouth and Barnstable, and also to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

According to the EPA’s draft report, heavy machine gun fire could introduce chemical contaminants like copper and nitroglycerin, as well as degrading bullets, casings, and fragments to the sandy, porous soil that sits atop the lens.

Those chemicals could worsen drinking water pollution that the military caused throughout the 20th century, the EPA warned. A billion-dollar cleanup is still ongoing.

“I mean, they didn't do that on purpose,” said Commissioner Sheila Lyons. “But once you know, you have to do better and what [the Guard is] proposing is not.”

Commissioner Mark Forest seconded her sentiment, saying a new machine gun range on Cape Cod should be prohibited.

“It's just not the right place,” Forest said.

The EPA’s public hearing on the report will be held at the Center for Active Living at 70 Quaker Meetinghouse Road in Sandwich. It will begin at 7 p.m. and will be preceded by a public meeting beginning at 6:30 p.m. Individuals with accessibility or translation requests may contact Melanson.kate@epa.gov for assistance.

The EPA will also accept written comments until June 26, before a recommendation on the draft report is sent to the EPA administrator in Washington, D.C. Comments can be sent via email to R1SSAComments@epa.gov.

More of CAI's reporting on the proposed machine gun range.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.